At our Book Hangout last week, Cal asked the question: Why do you read? It’s kind of an unfair question, since we all have a lot of different reasons for reading. But one of mine — and one that gets forgotten a lot, since reading is such a solitary activity — is reading to be part of a larger conversation. When I imagine “a reader,” I see someone curled up in an armchair by the fire with maybe a cat or something. And it’s true that, in our culture at least, we usually read alone. But what we do with our reading becomes part of a larger community.
Last month, when I was in New York, I was stopped by a woman who saw my Toni Morrison shirt and wanted to talk about The Bluest Eye and Beloved. She and I didn’t share background, race, socioeconomic history, common interests, or almost anything else, but we connected through story. Maybe that’s not a big thing, but I think it’s a beautiful thing.
This week, I’m visiting my parents in Pensacola, and I stopped by Revolver Records. I was looking for vinyl, and I found it. But I also had a conversation with Eric about Mary Roach’s Stiff, the book he was reading between customers. Stiff is a really fascinating, compelling, and funny book — about cadavers. Eric and I talked about Roach’s other books, too. We’ve both read Bonk, her book about sex, and I’ve read Spook (about ghosts) and Packing for Mars (about space). He’d also read Gulp, her book about the digestive system, which lead him to reading The Big Necessity, Rose George’s book about human waste. (Making our conversation maybe the most literal use of the phrase “we shot the shit” ever.)
At the Book Hangout, we talked about reading for escape (The Martian and Annihilation were the big winners here), and reading to learn (Mary Roach was mentioned again, as well as pretty much anything by Michael Lewis). Some of us read to find out about things we know nothing about, and some of us read to learn more about ourselves.
I’m a book geek anyway, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love sitting in my armchair at home, alone with my book and my solitude. I do like that. But I think it’s more interesting to connect with people about books, and that’s what I find most magical about them. Whether it’s your actual next-door neighbor, a stranger on a New York street corner, or a record store owner in a Florida beach town, books connect us to other people. I guess, when it comes down to it, that’s why I read.
Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee and Books, and independent bookstore and coffee shop in Birmingham, Alabama.